The UConn Huskies next step on their path to salvaging something positive from this trying season is a game on Monday night at Virginia Tech (ESPN, 7PM).
The Hokies looked highly motivated in their first-round NIT dismantling of Quinnipiac (81-61). Virginia Tech is clearly out to prove that the NCAA selection committee made a big mistake by not including their 24-8 team in the field of 65.
You always wonder about "major" teams that get snubbed by the NCAA tournament. Will they hang their heads and wonder what might have been, or will they kick butt in an effort to prove something to the public (and themselves).
Virginia Tech was playing with intensity from the opening tip, but the telling play occurred about ten minutes into the first half. Leading scorer Malcolm Delaney dove headfirst over the scorer's table in an attempt to save a loose ball. Okay—the Hokies are on a mission.
Conversely, the Huskies opened their NIT play with a less than convincing squeaker against Northeastern. Talent wise, Northeastern should have had their doors blown off, but the "other Huskies" were clearly the more focused and hungry team.
The UConn players, particularly their senior trio, had spoken in the days leading up to the game about redemption—about salvaging their season with a strong showing in the NIT.
I didn't see it.
The body language was there, but the cohesiveness was not. It has been a long time since the Huskies played solid team ball, and even longer since more than one player had a good performance in the same game.
The game was won by what Kemba Walker called "The Jerome Show."
UConn was down by six with five minutes to play when Jerome Dyson took matters into his own hands. He took over the point guard duties from a struggling Walker (one of his worst games of the season), scored 11 of UConn's final 13 points, and helped lock down Northeastern's Matt Janning.
Clearly, Dyson was terrific in those closing minutes ("Onions!"), but where was he for the first 35 minutes of the game? What happened to Kemba? Why couldn't Stanley Robinson and Gavin Edwards exploit their athletic advantages in the post?
The key to UConn's victory over Northeastern, as well as the key to any success they might have going forward in this tournament, was far more subtle.
Alex Oriakhi had a modest stat line (8 PTS, 9 REB), but he managed to stay on the floor for 28 minutes. He made some big plays at both the beginning, and the end of the game.
Not coincidentally, it was the most minutes he had played in a game since the last UConn victory back on Feb. 22 against West Virginia.
The primary problem for the Huskies this season has been the lack of a consistent post presence. Right from the start of the season, almost every team that has beaten the Huskies has packed the paint on the them.
Unafraid of the UConn post players, they sit back, close off the driving lanes, and dare the UConn guards to beat them from outside—obviously not a strength of this team.
If Oriakhi—or Edwards, Robinson, or Ater Majok—can make teams pay down low, it creates opportunities for the UConn guards; it simply makes the game easier.
Defensive play and rebounding keeps a post player on the floor in the Calhoun system. Will one of the big men step up?
Against a hungry, ticked-off Hokies team, UConn is going to need all the help they can get.